Reports of an assault underway; Aziz goes on TV; captured Islamists will return to the NWFP
The confrontation between the Taliban-supporting Islamists of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, and the Pakistani government in the heart of Islamabad appears to be moving towards the end game. With yesterday’s capture of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of the Lal Masjid, and the surrender of upwards of 1,400 students, the hard-core Islamists inside are now in a stand off with the Pakistani Army, the Pakistani Rangers and the Islamabad police. Pakistan’s The News reported a “full-fledged commando operation has been launched” against those remaining inside the mosque while the Rangers have occupied the Environment Ministry building next door to the mosque. Other news outlets, such as Dawn and Daily Times said the blasts at the front gate of the Red Mosque and the positioning of troops and deployment of Cobra helicopter gunships are a show of force in an attempt to get others inside the mosque to surrender.
It appears a limited raid, and not a full-on assault of the compound occurred today. Pakistani troops captured “eight hardcore militants who tried to escape from the besieged Lal Masjid amidst heavy exchange of gunfire” Dawn reported. “There was firing from the mosque. Some grenades were also hurled and sporadic firing is going on now, chief military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said. There was no shelling of the mosque by security forces and helicopters did not fire.”
The Pakistani Army’s 111 Brigade, a unit loyal to President Pervez Musharraf and instrumental in his success 1999 coup takeover, has been put on the front line at the Red Mosque. “The entire locality around Lal Masjid had been handed over to the army,” Dawn reported. “There were APCs all over and army units in trucks fitted with machine-guns were patrolling G-6 [the district of Islamabad that the Red Mosque is in] and nearby localities.”
Abdul Aziz was put on Pakistani Television and estimated there were around 250 male and 600 female students still inside the mosque and madrassas at the compound. Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao claimed only 50 Islamists were left inside the compound, and “are in possession of hand-grenades, petrol bombs and other lethal weapons.” Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the brother of Abdul Aziz, indicated he and the remaining followers inside the mosque were willing to surrender, however Reuters did not say if there were any conditions that must be met. Earlier Ghazi sated the Pakistani security forces must withdraw prior to any stand down.
President Pervez Musharraf “said there will be no further talks or compromise with the administration of Lal Masjid” during a security meeting. But Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz is facilitating talks between Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the Taliban-supporting Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, and religious leaders inside the mosque.
Maulana Abdul Aziz said leaders at the mosque were trying to get the women students to stay. “Some of our women teachers were of the opinion that some female students should be kept at the mosque. They were politely counseling them to stay as this is the time as a sacrifice,” Aziz said, according to Reuters. “They are not used as human shields, we only gave them passion for jihad (holy war).” The images of dead women after an assault on the mosque would be a tremendous propaganda coup for the Taliban and their Islamist allied. Aziz also denied having any links to al Qaeda, which he referred to as our foreign friends.”
The Pakistani government brought Aziz and his daughter in front of the anti-terrorism court and charged him with seven criminal counts, including terrorism, kidnapping of policemen and kidnapping of Chinese citizens. Aziz was placed “on 7 day physical remand” and placed his daughter in jail.
The women who have surrendered are being released unconditionally, while the “all the men who surrendered were being taken to Adiala jail and would be released only after their record is checked for any criminal activities,” Dawn reported. “Those found innocent would be given Rs5,000 [about $86] to enable them to travel back home as most of them belong to the North-West Frontier Province.”
NWFP/FATA map. Red agencies/ districts openly controlled by the Taliban; purple is defacto control; yellow is under threat. Click map to view.
The largely Taliban-controlled Northwest Frontier Province has long been a recruiting ground for radical mosques such as the Lal Masjid, Muridke in Lahore and Binori Town in Karachi. The Taliban have lashed back against the government in the Northwest Frontier Province.
A government convoy of eight vehicles was rammed by a suicide car bomber outside of Miramshah. Ten were killed, including six security personnel, and nine wounded. A roadside bombing in Swat killed four, including a policeman, while another policeman was shot and killed and a police station was mortared.
Police blame Maulvi Fazlullah, a radical Taliban cleric in Swat who runs illegal FM radio stations and organizes anti-polio shot campaigns, for the attacks in Swat. “Militant leader Maulvi Fazlullah has close links with the administration of the Lal Masjid and the provincial government is contemplating action against him,” Dawn reported. “The cleric, who had recently signed an agreement with the provincial government, in broadcasts on his FM channel on Tuesday and Wednesday, asked his supporters to take up arms against the government to avenge the action taken against Lal Masjid and carry out suicide attacks.”
The Pakistani government has surrendered the tribal agencies of Bajaur and North and South Waziristan in a series of “peace deals” over the past year, and much of the tribal agencies and settled districts are either openly under Taliban control, the government has unofficially surrendered areas to the Taliban (such as Bannu and Tank), or the areas are contested. The Pakistani government is sending the students of the Lal Masjid back to the hinterlands of Northwest Frontier Province, where they will be able to reinforce their brothers-in-arms.
See The Fall of the Northwest Frontier Province for more information of the deteriorating security situation.
Previous articles on the Red Mosque standoff: